Photographing and documenting the incredible New Orleans jazz music scene, Mardi Gras festival, cemeteries and overall vibe of the city, photographer Skip Bolen's images capture the essence of one of America's most beloved cities.
A New Orleans native, Bolen began as an art director and painter but it wasn't until he worked at Condé Nast in New York that the camera became more than just a tool, but an artistic instrument. Inspired by lighting, composition and photographers like Herman Leonard, Bolen now photographs stills for major films and TV shows. As a member of the International Cinematographers Guild, Bolen has captured stills for TV shows like Scream Queens, Vampire Diaries, NCIS: New Orleans, True Blood, True Detective and movies like Hours and Hide just to name a few. On top of that, Bolen has had his images published in a myriad of major magazines including The New York Times, Rolling Stone and Vogue. Take a look as the master photographer gives us the inside scoop into his gear, working on TV and movie sets, and inspirations from the beautiful city of New Orleans.
TH: Can you tell us a bit about yourself?
SB: I love what I do, I always have. I’m a guy, born in the south just outside New Orleans in the sticks, my dad is from Indiana and was a test pilot, my mom was from Chicago. I studied graphic design and art, and started working in publishing as an art director for several years before moving off to New York City where I worked at Condé Nast (Vogue, Vanity Fair, GQ, etc) and eventually moved to Los Angeles where I became a photographer for Getty Images. Hurricane Katrina brought me back home. I wanted to be back in New Orleans in 2006 where it was like the wild wild west and New Orleans was coming back to life. I have a mad love affair with New Orleans, New York and Los Angeles and when I’m sleeping with one, I wanna be with the other two… but for now, I’m in New Orleans.. living and working, and share a life with a few cats. Can’t wait to start a band again!
TH: How/when did you get into still photography?
SB: I’ve always had an interest in photography, but when I was in my early 20’s, I was an art director in publishing and a painter, so photography (or camera) back then was more of a tool that I could use to photo-document or record something that I could later use as a reference to paint and/or draw from. And as an art director, I had an opportunity to see so many great images that conveyed or told a story that complimented and worked in tandem with what the writer had written at what ever magazine I was working at at the time. When I worked at Condé Nast in NYC, I worked with the Creative Director, Alexander Liberman, who was an artist and photographer, and we would get these amazing images from photographers all over the world that included Annie Leibovitz, Bruce Weber, Irving Penn, Helmut Newton, Mario Testino, Herb Ritz, Richard Avedon, etc. I was also listening to and discovering jazz back then and I fell in love with all the early Blue Note Jazz album covers that were photographed by Francis Wolff, Herman Leonard, William Claxton and so many others. And so when I finally picked up the camera to use it as something other than just a tool for my painting and drawing, I was immediately using all these photographers as inspiration and I picked up my camera along with a few rolls of film and found myself heading to "The 55 Bar,"a jazz club in the West Village in NYC. This was the first true defining moment when I realized I wanted to use the camera to create art. And so much so, that I signed up for photography courses at ICP (International Center of Photography in NYC).
TH: What do you love most about New Orleans?
SB: I love that New Orleans is so different than any other city in the US especially it’s food, culture, music, architecture and lifestyle, it’s all so organic and alive. Growing up here, I just assumed every place was like New Orleans where you’re always surrounded by Jazz, Cajun, Creole, Blues, French, Spanish and Vietnamese influences - and you get to celebrate Mardi Gras (a four-day holiday here) along with so many music festivals, and there is always a parade or second line. It wasn’t until I moved to NYC and later to Los Angeles did I realize exactly how unique and different New Orleans really is. Everything here has an organic and handmade quality to it, the old architecture has life. The air is thick with humidity. Ferns and plants can grow anywhere, on the sides of buildings, in trees, everywhere. I saw a car the other day in the parking lot of a grocery store, it was dented on one side, a fern was growing out of the side of the car because fern spores had found their way into the cracks in the paint and there is enough moisture in the air here to sustain life anywhere! Artists and musicians can actually make a living here and so, the city is filled with art and music!
TH: Do you have any favorite photographer(s) or artist(s) that have inspired you?
SB: Wow, yes - photographers like Herman Leonard, Ray Avery, and Bill Claxton. Herman Leonard lived in New Orleans and I met him at the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival where we quickly became friends, Herman and his work were a huge inspiration. Herman was a genius and immense talent and I learned so much from him. He had an amazing eye and so as a photographer, the composition within each photograph, the lighting, all was so amazingly beautiful. But then he was also a master in the darkroom and so he knew exactly how to enhance each image, dodging and burning to emphasize the subject matter. I just don’t think what I learned from Herman could be found at any school and to this day while shooting digital, I work each image now in Photoshop the same way I would have done in a darkroom again, dodging, burning adjusting contrast, saturation, etc. Later when I moved to Los Angeles, I met jazz photographers Ray Avery and Bill Claxton and both were huge inspirations at the time.
Other Influences: Francis Wolff, Milt Hinton, Edward Steichen, Horst P. Horst, Cecil Beaton, Henry Clarke and Philippe Halsman - I love the old school classical photographers. I take what I’ve learned from looking at all of their work and apply that to my own work today - it’s all about composition and lighting. And I have to admit, for myself at least, having that foundation as an art director and designer, I feel I understand composition.
TH: What inspires your photography?
SB: So many different things… mood, lighting and music…. the beat of a song from a musician performing. Feelings and emotions from an actor or musician performing and trying to capture those feelings and emotions while conveying a story, it’s a form of communication. A cloudy, rainy, overcast drizzling day (my favorite lighting) makes me want to grab my camera and run to the nearest cemetery and start shooting!
TH: What makes New Orleans different to shoot at compared to other cities?
SB: The culture, the rhythm and the beat of the city… it’s toe-tapping, finger snapping and makes you wanna dance and move your body… and you learn to photograph while dancing and moving your body… the beat determines when you press the shutter… to find that right moment…. harmony!
TH: What is it like to photograph for hit TV shows and movies that have actors like Matthew McConaughey, Diane Neal or the late Paul Walker?
SB: It’s a f*cking blast!!! (BOLD FACE and CAPITAL LETTERS!!!) I’ve gotten to work with Director William Friedkin (The Exorcist & The French Connection) on the film “Killer Joe” with Juno Temple, Matthew McConaughey, Emile Hirsch, Gina Gershon and Thomas Haden Church. What an amazing work experience and being on set, it was so crazy good! The chance to work with William Friedkin, to listen to his stories and to watch him work. Genius!!! That’s when I first met Matthew McConaughey, so down to earth and what a talent, just to watch him work is amazing. And Juno Temple, what a sweetheart and now she’s on Scorsese and Mick Jagger’s “Vinyl” - it’s so great to watch her again! And then I got to work with Matthew McConaughey again on the first season of HBO’s True Detective - that opening scene of the woman’s nude body in the middle of a cane field with Woody Harrelson and Matthew McConaughey, and the interrogation scenes in the police station - AMAZING!!!! Diane Neal - love her, LOVE her, love her. She was on several episodes of NCIS: New Orleans and she is hysterically funny on set, smart, witty and an amazing talent! And OMG, Paul Walker on Eric Heisserer’s film “Hours.” There were several incredibly intense moments because it’s just Paul Walker and his premature newborn and he’s trying to keep her alive during Hurricane Katrina where the power goes out. As a still photographer, I am trusted by the actors to join in this inner circle where it’s incredibly intimate - it’s the camera operator filming, then it’s me right next to the camera and then there is a sound guy behind us with a boom…. and then there is the actor before us. It’s like being in the first row center seat in the orchestra to the most amazing performances ever! It’s simply AMAZING!
I had the opportunity to work on WGN’s “Underground” that will debut March 9th (2016) — watch it! It’s going to be ground breaking, it’s going to be intense! John Legend is one of the producers, all the actors are spectacular, it’s going to be an amazing show and that too was an amazing experience!!!
TH: If you could have an hour to talk with anyone from the past, who would that be?
SB: 1) First, it would have to be my mom - she died several years back from Alzheimer's. I’d love to talk to her again. 2) My friend Herman Leonard…miss him!
TH: Do you have any tips or suggestions for other aspiring photographers?
SB: YES! First of all, if anyone is ever a negative influence in your life, get rid of them, you don’t need them in your life! If anyone ever tells you that you can’t do something, don’t ever listen to them! You have to follow your heart, you have to follow your gut, follow your instincts and if you honestly feel strong about something, do it! Just do it!
When I was in High School, I can still remember my guidance counselors asking me what I wanted to do with my life and when I said a career in art, they said I should think of something else. If I had listened to them…. well, I’m glad I completely ignored them along with several other people that when I told them I wanted to pursue a career in art, they tried to persuade me to do something else.
If someone older than you can teach you something, reciprocate and teach someone younger than you something. It’s the cycle of life and it’s good karma. In your life as an artist, photographer and human - if someone opens a door for you, learn to open the door for others. Because I was an art director in publishing when I lived in New Orleans, I knew I had to be in NYC and I wanted to work at Condé Nast, on a whim and $50 in my back pocket, I drove my car to NYC and it was the greatest thing ever! I interviewed with Anna Wintour at Condé Nast and was hired by her. It was an absolutely amazing work experience!!! Same thing when I eventually moved to Los Angeles, I moved on a whim! Whim is good! Take a chance, do things on a whim! I also love sink or swim situations, learn to swim! If you ever have a question, ask me, I’m pretty easy to get in touch with…
TH: If you could describe New Orleans in 3 words, what would they be?
SB: HOT! HUMID! FUN!
TH: What are your day-to-day cameras and lenses?
SB: Today, it’s my Canon 1Dx and Canon 5D Mk III cameras. Lenses, a Canon 70-200mm f/2.8, followed by a Canon 24-70mm f/2.8 and the 16-24mm f2.8. The Canon 1DX is indestructible, built like a tank! However, these cameras are dinosaurs, I’m anxiously awaiting the newly announced Canon 1DX Mk II in the next month or two, and later the Canon 5D Mk IV when it comes out.
On film sets, I use two Jacobson Sound Blimps with Jacobson Lens Tubes, these are required to work on film sets. Plus I like the added protection of my camera in a sound blimp, I’m very rough on equipment. At any moment I can be laying face down in the middle of a French Quarter street with my face hugging the asphalt trying to get a shot and next climbing on top of a 12 step ladder, to teetering on the edge of a window sill, I do whatever it takes to get the shot!
My camera bag, it’s the Think Tank Logistics Manager 30, I put it through hell and back, and its made incredibly well. Doesn’t tear or come undone. I have however completely worn out the wheels and Think Tank got replacement wheels to me right away!
Camera Straps: Black Rapid system. I use both the Black Rapid Double Slim, and the Double. It’s what works best for me to carry two cameras in two sound blimps at all times.
In the near Future, I’m already looking at and considering the Sony A7RII and A7SII cameras because they are completely silent mirrorless cameras - I’m seriously considering adding these to my day-to-day cameras. These would be absolutely perfect for use on film stages.
Also, in my film days, I shot with a Leica R8 and a complete set of Leica Lenses, there really is nothing like Leica glass! And while Leica has just come out with the Leica SL mirrorless camera, unfortunately it’s not completely silent. I’m hoping the next generation Leica SL will be completely silent. I would then seriously consider that camera as my day-to-day camera system.